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More than any other ancient site in Iran, Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid in Persian) embodies all the glory – and the demise – of the Persian Empire. It was here that the Achaemenid kings received their subjects, celebrated the new year and ran their empire before Alexander the Great burnt the whole thing to the ground as he conquered the world.
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This magnificent ruined city on its 722ha site is a national monument, and the largest stone structure ever built south of the Sahara. It was the base for a succession of kings and rulers spanning four centuries, and has subsequently had the whole country named after it. The term zimbabwe or dzimbahwe is derived from the Shona words dzimba dza mabwe (‘houses of stone’), referring not just to this prime site but to the hundreds, if not thousands, of similar but smaller sites in this area and further afield. The strange carved soapstone birds found here have provided the country with its national symbol.
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This tiny island, the remotest inhabited place on earth, is known worldwide for its moai, massive stone figures carved by members of a now virtually forgotten culture which developed in total isolation over many centuries. After the collapse of the moai-carving culture, the island was left deforested and almost depopulated, but still dotted with moai, some standing in groups on ahu platforms, some overthrown nearby, and many abandoned at the quarry where they were carved. These remain today alongside petroglyphs and other relics. It’s intensely evocative, largely because so little is known about their creators and the disappearance of their culture. Nowadays the native Polynesian culture is rebuilding well, but without tourism it would be a very limited subsistence lifestyle.
© Ariadne Van Zandbergen
The oldest town in Ethiopia, holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and former capital of one of the world’s greatest empires, Axum – also spelt Aksum – today is smaller than you might expect, and rather inauspicious on first contact. But while it might lack the immediate impact of Lalibela or Gondar, the city is scattered with startling antiquities, most notably the ancient Church of Maryam Tsion and nearby stelae field, but also a selection of mysterious catacombs, ruined palaces, multilingual tablets dating from the time of Christ, and much more besides.
© Paul Doyle
The Baalbek complex, a homage to the gods of the Heliopolitan Triad: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury, contains some of the largest and most impressive Roman remains in the world. Lebanon’s most feted archaeological attraction, Baalbek was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 with the comment that ‘Baalbek, with its colossal structures, is one of the finest examples of imperial Roman architecture at its apogee’. Despite a series of devastating earthquakes and a succession of conquering civilisations over the millennia, the Baalbek site is one of the most remarkably preserved complexes in the Middle East and a visit should be on every traveller’s itinerary to Lebanon. Visiting the site early on in the day will ensure there are fewer crowds and coach parties and yield better, warmer photographs of the ruins.
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